Friday, April 8, 2011

Libya and American Hubris

Tony Karon provides at Time's Global Spin another of his customarily spot-on analyses - this one on the situation in Libya.  Up front:
That which has been obvious for some time now is finally being officially acknowledged: Libya's power struggle is stalemated, and is likely to remain that way on the basis of the current level of NATO commitment. That was the grim assessment in congressional testimony Thursday by General Carter Ham, the U.S. commander who led the initial phases of the operation.
In his view, though, there's little chance that the US-NATO-UN "allies" are going to escalate their intervention, for five reasons that he lays out succinctly but very clearly.  Without detailing all of them, I can say that they largely boil down to his perception that in any escalation, the US and its allies have too much to lose relative to any possible gains.  But he assumes that the Obama policy establishment has the foresight and maturity to make such a reasoned calculation - or perhaps, that having made such a calculation, they will act accordingly.  I don't have such faith.

Why not? Because Obama's decisions with respect to Libya tell me that he remains in thrall to what Andrew Bacevich has referred to as the "Washington Rules" - the core belief that it's the (for all intents and purposes) God-given right and responsibility of the United States to take the lead in restoring order on the planet when that order seems to be unraveling, and that failure to take that lead would constitute an unforgivable abandonment of American leadership and betrayal of American values.  Didn't he say as much in his speech explaining the US's taking the initial lead with the no-fly zone?

“To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and, more profoundly, our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are,”

As someone who was raised during an era when the US was still basking in its rescue of the world from Hitler and asserting itself as leader of the "free world" against godless Communism, it's difficult for me .not to be stirred by such words, by such a summoning up of a time when US might seemed both invincible and heaven-sent.

To his credit, Obama did make plain in that speech that
 “If we tried to overthrow Qaddafi by force, our coalition would splinter. We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground, or risk killing many civilians from the air. . . .  The dangers faced by our men and women in uniform would be far greater. So would the costs, and our share of the responsibility for what comes next."

But at the time, only a few weeks ago, he surely must have believed that his gamble would pay off relatively soon, that Qaddafi would see the writing on the wall and cave when faced with American might and the moral power of the Arab Spring.

But, here we are, seemingly locked into a stalemate that may well last a very long time. . . .  unless there's a game-changer.  And when the US policy establishment sees hanging in the balance American leadership and primacy - that God-given prerogative without which civilization as we know it cannot endure - we can expect to hear its voices raise the cry that it's up to the US to come up with that game-changer, to do something, as only it can.  One such voice comes from a predictable source: the Washington Times:
absent ground forces, it’s unclear what can be done.  The key bit of jargon to watch for is the expression “unique capabilities.” The fact remains that there are some military missions that only the United States has the ability to undertake, and discussions of these “unique capabilities” can be decoded as laying the groundwork for escalation. Whether this means American boots on the ground or support for other ground forces remains to be seen, but that new phase of war is coming soon.
But what that game-changer might really require is laid out by Anthony Cordesman (h/t Tony Karon), who prefaces his prescription with a manly declaration that "there is no turning back now" - and then asserts that the best option is to "escalate regime kill" by resorting to a panoply of weapons that he describes in specific detail:
 it means killing Qaddafi forces the moment they move or concentrate rather than waiting for them to attack, striking Qaddafi’s military and security facilities, and finding excuses to strike his compound. It means denying him the ability to use infiltrators, civilian vehicles, and lighter weaponry like mortars by expanding the use of UCAVs and targeting/surveillance systems,  and stepping up air strikes.  It also means using techniques like covertly inserting Special Forces with laser illuminators to help target from the ground in ways that can do much to separate Qaddafi’s forces from the rebels and civilians once they are engaged.

And it also means
 tolerating more civilian losses and collateral damage in the short run – knowing this is likely to reduce total civilian suffering in comparison with any stalemate, Qaddafi victory, or low-level struggle.

In other words, we have to destroy the village in order to save it?  And why? Because if we don't,
 The US and NATO will pay greater penalties for failure. Success will be relative at best and be unpopular with the critics of the operation already underway. Yet a strategy of regime kill is far easier for the Libyan people to live with, however, than a stalemate or failure, and far easier for the rest of a divided world to excuse.

There you have it, again.  Libya and the world are counting on America, and it's up to America to save Libya and the world.  Cordesman admits that this regime-kill approach "will quickly cause a negative international reaction," but, hey, they'll thank us for it in the end - even those Libyans whose sons and daughters, wives and husbands we will have wasted as necessary collateral damage.

But, I fear, this is precisely how it's going to play out.  Having committed American military credibility in what he touted as so noble, so "American" a cause, Obama will not be able (or permitted) to accept a continued stalemate, or a cease-fire that might harden into a Libya partitioned into eastern and western halves, because the policy establishment could never accept any ending that would allow a Muammar Qaddafi to thumb his nose at America.  That's not - as Obama would say - "who we are."

In the title of his recent book, Peter Beinart calls this obscenely overblown sense of who we are, what it really is: American hubris.   If we're honest about it, we'd recognize that it's become "the American Way" - in both senses of that word: as a mode of behavior, and as a path . . . to decline and irrelevance.

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